President Donald Trump’s nominations to fill vacancies on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are leading opponents of a controversial pipeline project to shift their focus to fighting the proposal at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
If the U.S. Senate confirms the two nominations — a former utility commissioner from Pennsylvania and a longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — it would give the federal agency a full quorum, allowing it to act on an estimated $50 billion worth of energy projects stalled at FERC due to two vacancies on the commission.
For local residents and conservationists, the pending appointments could clear a key hurdle facing the PennEast Pipeline LLC project, a 120-mile conduit that would begin in Luzerne County, PA, and end in Mercer County near Trenton.
The commission approved the $1 billion project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement earlier this year, but the agency has yet to issue a certificate of approval for the pipeline, a step that would allow the developer to exercise eminent domain authority and gain access to property along the route of the project.
With many property owners denying the company access to their land, the developer has been unable to provide crucial data on wetlands, stream crossings, and other information needed to win approval of water permits from the New Jersey DEP.
At a press conference yesterday, opponents of the pipeline urged the state agency to reject the permit applications submitted by PennEast, saying they are incomplete and lacking key information.
“With New Jersey facing an onslaught of proposed, unneeded pipelines, the broken federal review system needs to be fixed,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director of ReThink Energy NJ and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
The vacancies on the commission have helped delay the project, but, “sooner or later, it is going to happen,’’ Gilbert predicted. “Given FERC’s track record, they will approve PennEast. The decision will rest with the state and the DRBC.” (The Delaware River Basin Commission also must approve the project).
“NJ DEP has significant authority when it comes to reviewing pipelines like PennEast,’’ said Sen. Christopher “Kip’’ Bateman (R-Somerset). “They have held PennEast accountable to date and now have ample reason to reject their illegal and incomplete pending application for permits.’’
Richard Dodds, deputy mayor of Kingwood Township, said FERC largely ignored concerns raised by local residents. “We are counting on DEP to do better and hold PennEast’s feet to the fire in meeting all legal requirements and environmental standards,’’ he said.
But some opponents fear the federal agency will issue a certificate and give the developer the right to exercise eminent domain — even without state approval of the permits, a step they argue is a violation of federal clean-water laws. “We are posturing ourselves for litigation,’’ said Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper.